City Council considers cost saving options


City News Service

Spending cuts proposed by Mayor Jerry Sanders would degrade public safety, a union official representing civilian Police Department employees testified today during the first of three special City Council hearings aimed at balancing San Diego’s budget.

The city is facing a budget deficit estimated at $179 million, according to the mayor’s office, although other officials have pegged the spending shortfall at $200 million.

Michael Zucchet, head of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, said proposed spending cuts would effectively take sworn officers off the street.

“These are people doing police work,” Zucchet told the City Council. “This police work is either going to go away, and I don’t think that is your proposal, or it is going to be replaced by sworn officers.”

“Think of what you are doing,” he said. “You are replacing a civilian, lower-cost employee and you are taking their job duties and assigning them to a much higher-cost, sworn police officer.”

Zucchet used to be a city councilman but resigned when he was caught up in a 2005 corruption scandal. He was eventually cleared.

Sanders’ plan to close the budget deficit, in part, calls for the elimination of 500 positions, about 200 of which are filled.

Many of those cuts will come from the civilian ranks within the San Diego Police Department, including investigative aides, police service officers and code compliance officers.

“Without the assistance of the police service officers, the sworn police officers will not have the time to respond to victims of crimes in a timely manner, therefore compromising public safety,” said Julie Estill, a police service officer.

Sanders, the former chief of police, testified that the city had no choice but to cut some civilian police personnel.

“None of us feel good about losing any of these folks, or the amount of work that they do,” he said. “And, it will require police officers, whether they are light duty, or whether there are some of the others to take over those duties, but they can still go back out into the field if we need them.”

While sworn police officers and firefighters will not be affected, their department budgets will be reduced by a total of $44.6 million.

As a result, police equestrian patrols will be eliminated, the number of canine units reduced and a Harbor Patrol unit in Mission Bay would be shut down.

At the fire department, the number of engine companies on duty would be reduced through “rolling brownouts.” Wintertime lifeguards would also be eliminated at Torrey Pines Beach.

Cuts proposed for other city departments would mean the reduction of library hours from 41 to 36 per week at each of San Diego’s 35 branches. Other planned cuts include:

– removing fire pits from beaches;

– less maintenance at sports fields and beaches;

– fewer vehicles replacements; and

— changes in the days and times of garbage collection.

— Sanders’ budget-balancing plan also calls for $95.6 million in one-time savings and budget adjustments. Payments into the retirement system stemming from a legal settlement would be restructured, and the city would delay putting fire sprinklers in City Hall.

Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, told the City Council the use of one-time funds to balance the budget was akin to “kicking the can down the road.”

At the start of the hearing, Sanders testified that the city’s budget deficit is the “most important issue facing San Diego today.”

He blamed the looming budget deficit on declining tax revenues and investment losses brought on by the recession.

“As a result of circumstances beyond our control, we need to close a deficit of $179 million, the largest in our history, and we need to act swiftly to minimize the harm to city services,” Sanders said.

“This budget protects the financial integrity we worked so hard to restore and it preserves our core services even as it takes necessary cuts in all areas including libraries, parks, police and fire,” Sanders told the council. “Through early decisive action, we can safeguard our essential city programs so they are able to rebound along with the economy.”

It is the fourth time in 19 months the city has had to adjust its budget down.

Councilman Carl DeMaio applauded the “proactive” efforts to deal with the budget deficit, but said San Diego needs to further address its pension and retiree health care obligations to avoid ongoing spending shortfalls.

“Yes we can make these painful cuts, and no one likes making them,” DeMaio said. “But, even with these painful cuts it will all be for not because the fundamental structural imbalance will remain in the city’s budget.”

“We have skyrocketing labor costs that are driven by pension and retiree health care obligations,” he said.

Councilman Tony Young said San Diego needs to make the effort now to resolve it’s projected long-term budget deficits. He also acknowledged the impact of the City Council’s decisions.

“It has kept me up at night for the last month thinking about the impact that some of our decision will have on individual lives,” Young said. “It’s very, very difficult for me.”

The mayor has called on the City Council to adopt a new budget by Jan. 1, six months before the next fiscal year begins.

Wednesday’s meeting was the first of three scheduled by City Council President Ben Hueso’s office to consider the mayor’s proposed mid-year budget amendments. There was no vote taken today on Sanders’ proposal.

The City Council will also meet on Dec. 9 and Dec. 14, when it will vote on the 18-month spending plan. The City Council’s independent budget analyst will outline her review of the mayor’s budget proposal during the City Council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.